OJ Simpson & The Black Male Image

by M.D.C.Bowen

I can remember a time when I admired O.J. Simpson. Today, he is just another brother on lockdown. Back when I knew USC was the greatest school on the planet, and the USC football team was God's own army, O.J. Simpson's Heisman trophy seemed to be the crown jewel around which black sporting manhood revolved. I recall my brief freshman days there which were terminated because of the California Student Aid Commission's determination that my father's ability to pay was entirely different than the Bank of America's determination of his ability to get a loan. I wandered around campus some days in limbo, a black electrical engineering student about to be dropped, while the football squads walked on water. And in those historical shrines which archived the awe inspiring greatness which was the University of Southern California was housed the legends of USC running backs. The greatest of all: O.J. Simpson. Bigger, stronger, faster, blacker. A brother named Orenthal. Damn!

Some years later, O.J. reappeared running over professional middle linebackers, through airports and around Kamby Bolongo in a loincloth that made my girlfriend grin. Me, I wasn't impressed. I was hoping Kunta would get away, but I guess that would never be. Then one day he put on those idiotic headsets and a blue blazer and tried not to sound too much like a brother named Orenthal. I was embarrassed for the man. It wasn't like he didn't know the game, but you could never tell by the way he spoke (when they let him talk). Well, at least he was there. I had the feeling that O.J. was trying hard: that inside him was a man struggling in every dimension to get the respect he deserved.

Maybe what was inside him was Bigger Thomas. But how could anybody know that? O.J. still had it goin' on, that is until Hollywood got ahold of him. Specifically and finally, The Naked Gun. O.J., the great running back, the dashing country boy with the million dollar smile, the darling of Ebony family editions, the legend of USC and the Pro Football Hall of Fame became Nordberg. Nordberg, the stupidest black cop ever on the silver screen.

Now if I remember correctly, it was Bernie Casey who, in "They Call Me Mr. Tibbs," played the first arrogant loudmouth black sergeant. It was a trickster role and he played it to the T. The ultracompetent, if not too smart for his own good, passed up for promotion, licensed to beat up on white cops, black police sergeant is a linchpin character in post-civil rights Hollywood. I watched him with pride in more TV shows and movies than I care to think about. Finally he got his parody in The Last Action Hero, but it took a lot of nerve to make O.J. a complete boob. Sure, that was the point. Make fun of O.J. for a laugh, make a couple million in Hollywood. No harm no foul, at least he's getting paid, his character doesn't die...

Not that I had an overly long role model list. O.J. had been dropped. If I envied the brother for doing with physical skill what I could not do with brainpower at USC, I finally had my chance to laugh at and dismiss the punk, even though his English coach eventually did a very good job. (If you don't believe me, listen to the personal parts of his audiobook). Nordberg! I knew there was something wrong with O.J. Or at least my internal dozens generator had grabbed plenty ammo, and the black man's internal dozens generator never sleeps. Then again, neither does Hollywood's.

The black man's image is a wonderful tool which can be shaped and used for good or ill. It really doesn't matter what the individual black man does or thinks about it. He can't really control that. So all of us are holding our breath about Colin Powell, Bryant Gumbel, and Ron Brown. Despite the ample contents of their individual characters, we know that their images are still in play. Fortunately we have Malcolm X, MLK and Arthur Ashe who all died before the media got them Nordbergized. There are others like Julian Bond, Judge Higgenbotham and Vernon Jordan who have managed to keep a low profile, but the high profile is most certainly death to black manhood by symbolic manipulation. This is done on a fairly regular basis in the national interest whether the individual black man asks for it or not. So despite the fact that O.J. became Nordberg, which he probably wanted to do, there is the constant fable weaving for the general population which requires the sacrifice of black men's dignity. O.J. proved not to be exempt. I had noticed this phenomenon in the 80s and began taking mental notes, starting with Lee Atwater's success. Something was up. Finally it occurred to me that the black man's image was being used to teach the country very broad moral lessons.

Now these lessons were nothing new, it just seemed that this time we needed some epic sized proportions for America. We needed a miniseries. We needed a black face to imprint on America's consciousness so deeply that it could never forget. We needed lines as permanent as "One small step for man..." We got "High tech lynching". What a country! First Willie Horton taught us about the Democrats who are soft on crime. Then Clarence Thomas taught us all about sexual harassment on the job. Then Mike Tyson taught us all about date rape. Then Rodney King taught us all about drunk driving. Now O.J. taught us all about spousal abuse. Sometimes I wish they could get one of us in the lesson plan for destroying Government property. Still, there was another brother who knocked Wall Street for a loop. Not since Milken and Boesky had there been such a fiendishly clever fraud. But that's the kind of criminal genius the other man likes to keep for himself, so they got somebody to destroy Baring's bank. And so I, and probably you too have forgotten the name of that black man who stole more than Reggie Lewis, our greatest millionaire, ever earned.

Oh well, we still have O.J. to be proud of. Everyone is pretty sure that his is the trial of the century. I think he just edged out Manson. Which reminds me. Black people now have their own mass murderer, Colin Ferguson. A hundred black comedians will now have to change their routines, even though he didn't eat anybody. But O.J.'s face is definitely imprinted. Time Magazine made sure it was black enough with a little help from Adobe Photoshop.

I suppose I can be flip with these conspiratorial lessons because I, like many millions of other African Americans, am not an orphan. I know, respect and love quite enough wonderful black people not to worry too much about the images of a few. My reality is not manipulated by the Hollywood mentality. If I were such a complete idiot to believe that hype I wouldn't have much reason to call myself a man, much less a black man. That doesn't change the fact that America does believe. And while it's true that those directly manipulated are real black people and their suffering is real, well so am I. And I have to remember the reasons that I expect something from those individuals in the first place. (That is if I knew them at all before they showed up on TV). What is it exactly that they represent to me and what exactly is their effect on my life? In the end, their effect is merely symbolic. O.J. didn't pay my tuition, Clarence didn't pinch my sister, Colin didn't shoot my friend, homeboy didn't steal my 401k. I have a choice as to what symbols affect me and my bookshelves are a lot bigger than my TV.

Some people think the fate of the African American male hangs in the balance of this trial. Well, what happened to Rodney King was more common than what's happening to O.J. and the aftermath of that was 56 dead. Of those how many were black men? Even if they were all black men, that's fewer than AIDS killed last week. Where's the news on that? I've got real harsh criteria these days, because I see and hear a lot of symbol manipulation. The O.J. trial is a very nice huge symbol, manipulated as it is just to give people something to gab about. Maybe there is a lesson in there, maybe not. But my criteria are: who died and why?

We remember Rosa Parks and we talk about all those who died in the civil rights, free speech, anti-war and black power movements so that we might be freer. I, myself, can only think of the big four: King, X, Evers and Till. But there were more. O.J. didn't die, and he's not going to die any time soon. Maybe the best thing that could have come out of this trial was having O.J. Simpson on death row. Then we could put some of these Hollywood miniseries symbols in perspective, beginning first with who is on death row and why? We know Nicole and Ron died. We don't know why. Isn't that just a tiny bit more important than O.J.'s symbolism? In any event, since O.J. was not charged with "special circumstances," the maximum sentence he faces is life without parole.

As it happens, I have little interest in murder trials either in reality or fiction. Miss Marple and Angela Landsbury both leave me cold. But I do admire Johnnie Cochran's art of symbol manipulation as he gives the jury ammo for their dozens generators against the LAPD. That legal craft is likely the most responsible of all miniseries creations. And certainly in Cochran's case it resolves questions as regards police brutality, who died and why. Coming up in Los Angeles as I did, I know that a black man with a baton upside his head has no better friend than the Law Offices of Johnnie Cochran.

As for O.J., either one hopes against hopes that O.J. will be freed and that symbolically the black man will be free or, like me, we continue to laugh at the punk. Whether or not he gets a fair trial is beside the point, because only the jury and the court officers and the appellate knows for sure. One can have faith, but I think there are much better things to have faith in. The point of us looking at this trial anyway, I have already described. We are to learn a lesson about spousal abuse. It doesn't matter what happens with O.J., what matters is that we were supposed to learn a lesson. Either way the jury decides, all the legal followup on the technical merits of the case will take place for the benefit of the legal community. America doesn't pay attention to that. The question for America is does the wife-beater get away or not? Either way, the black male face is imprinted on this cautionary tale. But that is the manipulation. The individual black male has nothing to do with it. But we knew that before, didn't we? So after all, this is really nothing to get excited about. Unless of course, you are some kind of orphan.

Followup - Editorials which illustrate black male faces on cautionary tales.

OJ or Rodney?
Slate's William Saletan speculates as to what kind of criminal Bill Clinton might be.